Long before Denzel and Wesley, and Angela and Will, and so many others, there was Sidney Poitier. And only Sidney. For Hollywood's first major black star was, for many years, Hollywood's only major black actor. I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made, he admits. Indeed, when he stood before millions of TV viewers, clutching his 1964 Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field, he knew he was a one-man show. Some years back, Poitier reflected on his watershed career in his autobiography, This Life. Now he reflects on just life itself in The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Biography. Poitier has always sought to make movies that reflect his standards. In this conversational book, he utilizes some of those films, such as A Patch of Blue and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, to explore his views about contemporary life and values. Born on Cat Island in the Bahamas, the son of a tomato farmer, Poitier ruminates on topics ranging from racism to kids' incessant exposure to TV (and its often violent imagery). Recounting lessons learned on the streets of Miami (where he was sent to live with an older brother) and, later in New York City (where he moved at age 16), he recounts the humiliation he felt following a reading for the American Negro Theatre. The young Poitier was soundly rejected, since he could barely read and spoke with a thick Caribbean accent. Get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something! he was told. Stung by those words, and by the thought that dishwashing might be his destiny, Poitier set out to change. He began by learning to read. He would go on to slowly and carefully climb the film industry ladder. Though he sometimes turned down roles that did not meet his standards, he was never above taking menial jobs. After all, his father had taught him that the measure of a man was how well he provided for his children. Poitier would always provide, but would not sell his soul. Now that's spiritual.
Pat H. Broeske is an associate producer on the Court TV series, Anatomy of Crime.